The Restaurant Industry Is Failing Itself — and Millennial Employees

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CoupleAppearances aren’t everything, and this couldn’t be any truer than it is in the restaurant industry. The smiling servers and amazing food belie the typically fractured workplace cultures and poor working conditions present in many restaurants. And as millennials begin to pour into the workforce, the high-stress approaches that may have driven growth in the restaurant business over the years now do little more than drive exorbitant turnover rates.

Recent reality shows have portrayed restaurant kitchens as noisy, stressful, and profane, almost to a comic level — and yet, oddly enough, this is a correct representation of reality.

I’ve worked in a number of restaurants and have experience more than one instance of employees yelling obscenities at each other, of intense pressure that ultimately results in mistakes, of condescending behavior from high-level employees, and of ultra-demanding bosses who fire first and ask questions later.

Kitchen work is one industry where employer branding and company culture change nothing. No amount of wall décor or team-building activities makes the slightest difference, and this fact hasn’t seemed to matter for many years.

Until recently.

One highly visible issue in high-volume kitchens is employee turnover. In fact, the problem is so bad that kitchen managers will hire talented cooks even when there isn’t an immediate need, knowing that there will be one in the near future. What makes this chronic cook shortage even stranger is that culinary school enrollment rates are remaining consistent.

It has been suggested by restaurateurs that there has been a shift in attitude among the young people who historically filled these roles. Where cooks would traditionally work their way up the chain, arrive from other illustrious restaurants, or even show up for unpaid stints to showcase their skills, today’s new employees want to work on their own terms, and that doesn’t seem to go over well with industry veterans (where “veteran” means a person who has worked in the same kitchen for more than a year).

CookGiven that the pressure is high, pay is low, and everything is scrutinized, millennials are leaving cooking jobs behind in favor of positions that:

  • offer technical-skills training in their areas of expertise;
  • promote self-management and autonomy;
  • promote creativity and innovation;
  • offer flexible schedules;
  • and help them navigate their career paths.

Sadly, many establishments give interviewees the impression that they will receive these things, and once the interviewees come aboard, the employer fails to follow through. Some hiring managers will flat-out lie to interviewees or omit information to get them in the door. Of course, this practice results in employees leaving in droves and scares off prospects. However, the companies that are actually able to follow through on their promises experience much lower turnover rates.

In the highly competitive restaurant industry, those who are supposed to be compassionate trainers can easily become threatened by employees who show more promise than they do, which ultimately leads to miscommunication and conflict. This behavior flies in the face of what millennials expect and need from their jobs: engaged mentors and clear career paths.

With turnover rates higher than 100 percent at certain restaurants, something certainly needs to be done. To be more in line with the expectations of an increasingly millennial kitchen staff, proactive restaurants are beginning to slowly adapt.

Some successful restaurant employers, such as Philadelphia’s El Fuego and Detroit’s Zingerman’s, are able to maintain consistently low turnover rates by:

  • providing livable wages;
  • maintaining healthy workplaces by offering paid sick leave and/or health insurance;
  • and by creating clear career paths for all employees.

KitchenBottom line: restaurants need to show their employees that they value them by offering benefits beyond what is federally mandated. Restaurants need to make it worth their employees’ whiles to come to work every day. When your employees can’t even afford to get to work, they’ll stop showing up.

Even if a restaurant gives employees an overly generous pay increase, that won’t fix a poor work environment. If restaurants don’t provide employees with the resources necessary to succeed, then employees won’t stay for long.

Adopting these new approaches isn’t just a matter of shifting the restaurant culture — it’s a matter of survival. The old-school method of bullying kitchen staff into submission will not work on millennials. Hiring and retaining millennial talent means investing a great deal of energy and resources into them.

Millennials can and will do great work if restaurants treat them right, and that means keeping the promises employers make during the recruiting process.

Take the high road, get employees in the door, and keep them there. Your business and your customers will thank you.

Read more in Employee Turnover

Robert is a former kitchen workhorse who gradually became self-aware. His hobbies now include traveling, video games, and educating crusty old managers on how to effectively engage with their ever-growing millennial workforces.